Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, the Supreme Court justice, who passed away last Friday, was a towering women’s rights champion and steadfast advocate for gender equality and civil rights.
The first Monday in October just won’t be the same. When the justices of the Supreme Court assemble on that day—traditionally, the first on which the highest court in the land convenes following its summer recess—they will be short one jurist.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the unquestioned leader of the court’s liberal wing, died on Sept. 18 at her home in Washington, D.C. because of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer. She was 87.
While she stood barely five feet tall and weighed just 100 pounds, the diminutive Ginsburg, who became only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, was a towering champion for the rights of women and minorities.
President Bill Clinton appointed her to the high court in 1993, and during her 27 years on the bench, she delivered progressive opinions on some of the most pressing social issues of the times, from abortion rights and same-sex marriage to immigration and affirmative action.
Long before she served on the nation’s highest court, during her time as a litigator and director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in the 1970s, Ginsburg argued gender-discrimination cases before the court that would become legal landmarks, persuading justices that the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection applied not only to racial discrimination but also to sex discrimination. She accomplished this with an ingenious strategy of presenting men as victims of sex discrimination, saying that “almost every discrimination that operates against males operates against females as well.” She won five of the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court.
Late in life, Ginsburg became an internet sensation when New York University School of Law student Shana Knizhnik started the blog Notorious R.B.G. for the Supreme Court justice’s fiery liberal dissents. The title was a play on the name of the famous rapper Notorious B.I.G., who, like Ginsburg, was born in Brooklyn.
Even as her health failed, Ginsburg remained active, once participating in a Supreme Court teleconference hearing from a Baltimore hospital, where she was recuperating from an illness.
Like most of the world, community members at the University of Miami School of Law learned of Ginsburg’s death on Friday. Here, in an exclusive interview, some of them offer their insights on the life and legacy of the jurist whom Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor described as “an American hero.”
Anthony V. Alfieri, professor and Dean’s Distinguished Scholar; and director, Center for Ethics and Public Service
For many of us at UM Law who teach, research, and train students to collaborate with underserved communities in the fields of civil rights and poverty law, the work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Rutgers Law School, the ACLU, and the Supreme Court marks a through line connecting the advocacy campaigns of Charles Hamilton Houston, dean of Howard University Law School, and Justice Thurgood Marshall, founder of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to advance equality of opportunity in American law and society. No less important, for those of us who teach in the fields of civil procedure, federal courts, and complex litigation, Justice Ginsburg’s Supreme Court opinions, both for the majority and in dissent, highlight the value of process and procedural fairness in American law.
Hilarie Bass, J.D. ’81, president and founder, Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion; and chair of the University’s Board of Trustees
Imagine graduating from a top law school first in your class and being unable to find a job in a law firm? Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career trajectory was one that always reminded me both how far women lawyers have come within a relatively short period of time, as well as how far we still had to go to achieve her goals for us. There is no one in law, of which I am aware, who was more committed to equality under the law than Justice Ginsburg. I had the pleasure on multiple occasions to be in Justice’s company for small dinners. I was always so awestruck being in the presence of my personal hero that I found it difficult to not get totally tongue-tied. Her impact on the law and the meaning of equality under our constitution will never be forgotten. She is irreplaceable.
Caroline Bettinger-López, professor of law and director of the Human Rights Clinic
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg left many legacies that have touched my life. Her presence was palpable in the halls of Columbia Law School when I was a student there—she graduated at the top of the Class of 1959 and became the school’s first tenured women professor in 1972 (my 2003 CLS class was more than 50 percent women; hers had 12 women). Also in 1972, she founded the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, where I first practiced as an attorney—an experience that changed my life. The Chief Judge of the Eastern District of New York, where I clerked, presented Justice Ginsburg with what may be the best T-shirt ever—and which my sister promptly ordered for our fierce mother, Ruth. Perhaps most memorable for me was in 2005, when I sat in the Supreme Court and watched her ask pointed questions to counsel representing the Town of Castle Rock in Castle Rock v. Jessica Gonzales, a case which came to define my career and the law school experiences of many Miami Law Human Rights Clinic students. Pressing the attorneys as to why the Castle Rock Police Department failed to respond to Jessica Gonzales’ calls to enforce a domestic violence restraining order and find her missing children, Justice Ginsburg asked: “does discretion on the means to use include discretion to do nothing?” She brilliantly navigated the law while staying grounded in the realities of the most vulnerable members of our society. Justice Ginsburg was a champion for dignity, equality, and progress. Her pioneering work and indefatigable spirit paved the way for countless women and men to make choices about our lives, our bodies, our relationships, and our professions that were historically out of reach. I aspire to live a life that honors her legacy.
Caroline Bradley, professor, Dean’s Distinguished Scholar, and associate dean for International and Graduate Programs
Justice Ginsburg focused on comparative law early in her career as an assistant professor at Rutgers, where her teaching included comparative law and a comparative procedure seminar. In later years she regularly advocated comparative dialogue—sharing with and learning from others—as a matter of comity (because some problems require trust and cooperation) and humility (because other nations innovate and experiment, and we can learn from them). In 2016, at the European University Institute in Florence, Justice Ginsburg was asked what the single most precious piece of advice she wanted to share with the students, and she said: “Do something to help repair tears in your local community, nation, or world, something that will make life a little better for people less fortunate than you.” We should take to heart her call to share with and learn from others and to make the world a better place.
Donna Coker, professor and Dean’s Distinguished Scholar
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was my hero. Her pathbreaking sex discrimination cases in the 1970s resulted in making sex equality a constitutional right. She brought the same passion for justice to her work on the Supreme Court. Even when she was outnumbered, her legendary dissents created a path for the future and a reason for hope. Everyone in this country who works for the equality of all people stands on the powerful shoulders of “the notorious R.B.G.”
Charlton Copeland, professor and Dean’s Distinguished Scholar
Of the areas of jurisprudence in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent in the “ideological minority,” one of the most significant is the federalism decisions of the Rehnquist-Roberts Court eras. In dissent, she engaged the enduring questions of the relationship between the national government and the states. Shortly after her arrival, the lines between the Court’s “conservatives” and “liberals” hardened in the so-called federalism revolution that marked the return of the judicial enforcement of limits on Congress’ legislative authority—both regulatory and remedial. Those lines hardened in cases like Bush v. Gore. The state-rights conservatives intruded upon the authority of the Florida Supreme Court to prevent the state’s ongoing recount—effectively deciding the 2000 presidential election. There, Justice Ginsburg criticized what she called the majority’s “casual” citation of civil rights-era cases to justify its decision to take the case on appeal. She rejected the majority’s assertion that the Florida Supreme Court’s decision that “counting every legal vote was the overriding concern of the Florida Legislature” placed it in league with “state high courts of the Jim Crow South.”
In Shelby County v. Holder, the federalism revolution reached its height in invalidating part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the sole dissent, Justice Ginsburg noted that while the denial of access to the ballot through denials of voter registration had been largely eradicated, racial minorities continued to face efforts to diminish minority electoral strength through other means.
In each decision, Justice Ginsburg demanded that we recognize the ways that changes in the world affect the nature of the national-state relationship. She demanded that “our federalism” be one that was responsive to the facts of the world as they are, not as ideology or imagination would have them be. But she also demanded that “our federalism” be responsive to the fundamental demands for a more inclusive, egalitarian democratic process.
Caroline Mala Corbin, professor and Dean’s Distinguished Scholar
On my desk at the law school is a Ruth Bader Ginsburg mug. It was a Hanukkah gift from my husband, who always finds exactly the right present. He knew that Justice Ginsburg is a hero of mine. She brilliantly fought for women’s equal rights while at the ACLU and continued her advocacy on the bench. One of my favorite Notorious R.G.B. quotes is her answer to the question, “When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?” Her answer: ” ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”
Mary Anne Franks, professor and Dean’s Distinguished Scholar
It was Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s custom to wear a beaded bib necklace on the days the Supreme Court announced decisions she thought were wrong. Over her long tenure on the Supreme Court, the “dissent collar” began to appear more frequently. And Ginsburg often read her increasingly forceful dissents from the bench, condemning the Court for bowing to sexism and racism and for failing to uphold the equal protection of the laws. Her dissenting opinions were among her favorite opinions, Ginsburg said, because they were a way of speaking to the future; the disappointment she felt over wrong decisions did not extinguish her hope that in a later, better age, things might be decided differently. The day after Donald Trump was elected, Ginsburg wore her dissent collar. “I will not live to see what becomes of [my dissents],” she once said, “but I remain hopeful.” It falls to those who come after to vindicate that hope.
Michael Froomkin, Laurie Silvers and Mitchell Rubenstein Distinguished Professor of Law
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg inspired in multiple ways. There was, first, her personal story of repeated triumph over gender discrimination in the legal profession. Second, there was her career as an advocate for equal rights. Third, there was her tenure as a judge and especially as a justice. She wrote some important opinions, and not just about anti-discrimination. Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (2015), which allows states to experiment with electoral commissions in order to fight partisan gerrymandering, is one example. Due to the times in which we found ourselves, however, Justice Ginsburg was as at least as important for her dissents as for her majority opinions. I think, in particular, of her clear-eyed dissent in 2013 from the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which drastically limited the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “Race-based voting discrimination still exists,” Ginsburg reminded the five justices in the majority. In Bush v. Gore, her dissent was measured and almost technical if no less devastating for it; the fire appears in the final line in which the word “respectfully” is absent from the traditional conclusion, becoming instead “I dissent.” It remains for the rest of us to keep the fire going.
Patrick O. Gudridge, Professor & Dean’s Distinguished Scholar
I just read through the considerable pile of opinions Justice Ginsburg wrote in the last few years. She was quite ill much of the time and had every good reason to relax her famous fierce concentration. I learned right away that she did not. Every case received its just due—but over and above that Justice Ginsburg’s distinctive cast of mind was evident as ever.
She knew something very important. Individuals are free if they are able—enough—to govern themselves, to organize their own choices, and approaches. Importantly, not just women and men (she of course became famous for seeing this more clearly and earlier than many of us). Institutions—ordered accumulations of individuals—have claims to autonomy or liberty or self-government too, at least in a seriously free society. But that means there is always much careful work to be done to fit independences together, to tend to the interplay of qualities and competences, to recognize the implicit significance of equality as a master idea in all of this. This is a tall agenda indeed.
I could show you five opinions Justice Ginsburg wrote in the last few years—with nothing in common it seems—in which attention to carefully equal liberty, to the triumph of as many positive agendas as possible, to the accumulated wealth of accomplishment—all this we see over and over, her great gift, our lasting challenge.
Elizabeth M. Iglesias, professor of Law
As goes the court, so goes the country. Justice Ginsburg’s passing just weeks before the most consequential presidential election of recent history has already launched what no doubt will be an epic battle over the future of the U.S. Supreme Court. The justice’s fervent wish for a fitting replacement may explain why she declined to retire when President Obama would have chosen her successor. She believed there would be time, and in her time as an associate justice, she did right by the American people, defended the U.S. Constitution so that the country might become the best version of itself, and modeled the kind of healthy respect for the opinions of humankind that a government under law must accord to the law of nations and of other states.
For me, she deserves the highest honor for her relentless efforts to secure equal protection of the laws. She saw, more than many, that the denial of equal protection injures the person in her humanity, denying her the right to aspire, achieve, contribute and to enjoy the rewards of her success in these human endeavors. Throughout her long years of service, Justice Ginsburg used her time to fight for fairness. She won many of these battles, and when she lost, she notoriously dissented. Through her successes, she demonstrated it was worth it, after all and in her passing reminds us, there will be time—until there is not. I will miss her.
Osamudia R. James, professor, Dean’s Distinguished Scholar, and associate dean for Diversity, Equity, and Community
When we press our students to excavate the gender norms embedded in the law, we honor Justice Ginsburg’s insistence that the confines of those norms hurt not only women but also men. When we consider in class the perspectives that people of color bring to the law, we recall Justice Ginsburg’s demand that the intellectual work of black women be rightly recognized as valuable. When lawyers ask whether laws are just, we affirm Justice Ginsburg’s assertion that the purpose of dissent is not merely to disagree, but to present an alternate vision of what could be. When we turn alternate visions into a more just reality, we secure Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy. In that spirit, I hope that her memory is a revolution, secure in the knowledge that her life’s work already was.
Adalberto Jordan, J.D. ’87, judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
Justice Ginsburg was many things to many people, but one of her lesser known contributions to the American legal system might be her work in the field of international law. She served as the tireless and enthusiastic chair of the Judicial Advisory Board of the American Society of International Law, and every year she would lead a number of federal circuit judges—one from each circuit—in a discussion of international law decisions and trends in the field at the Society’s office in Washington, D.C. I was fortunate enough to represent the Eleventh Circuit on the advisory board, and I know I speak for my colleagues when I say that we will greatly miss Justice Ginsburg’s presence and leadership. Her loss saddens us all.
Julie Braman Kane, J.D. ’93, partner, Colson Hicks Eidson; president-elect, University of Miami Law Alumni Association; past president, American Association for Justice
Lifelong devotion to justice, democracy, and family; brilliant and strategic intellect; clarity of focus: these are the aspirations of many but the accomplishments of few. Justice Ginsburg accomplished each, unflinchingly and consistently. Her successful long-term strategic plan to fight sex and race-based discrimination created many of the opportunities and expectations that Americans enjoy today.
As I was sworn in to the Bar of the United States Supreme Court, my gaze and my mind were focused on her, in awe that someone so unassuming and diminutive could do so much, for so long, for so many people, most of whom will never realize that her strategy guided much that is good in today’s America. She may be gone, but her legacy will live on, woven deeply into the fabric of our country.
Carolyn Lamm, J.D. ’73, partner, White & Case; Distinguished Faculty Chair, White & Case International Arbitration Institute; University of Miami trustee; and former ABA president
Justice Ginsburg was a tremendous advocate for gender equality and an unparalleled, staunch protector of the rule of law. In 2010, as president of the ABA, I had the privilege of conveying the ABA Medal of Honor (the ABA’s highest honor) on Justice Ginsburg in recognition of her work as an academic, advocate, and jurist who had a profound impact on the development and advancement of gender equality in the law.
Her contributions to the law and the profession are enduring and vast. The most laudatory dimension of Justice Ginsburg is that not only did she lead the legal fight to change the law, but she worked tirelessly to open the door of opportunity for and act as a mentor promoting women. She also was a role model who inspired generations of women and demonstrated repeatedly women can “do it all.” Her legacy of strength, tenacity, and brilliance as a lawyer—who loved and was devoted to her husband Marty and her family—will continue to inspire women for generations.
Marni Lennon, assistant dean, public interest and pro bono; director of HOPE Public Interest Resource Center; and lecturer in law
Her unwavering commitment to equality served as an inspiration to so many She spent her lifetime committed to justice, issuing opinions, often dissents, to address inequities and fight for true equality. She demonstrated, in every step she took, what fighting for justice and perseverance look like. As lawyers, and as women, we honor her by recommitting to confronting inequality in our daily lives and in the systems reinforcing that reality.
Personally, I had the honor of hearing her speak in Washington. For me, from the bench and in the example of her life, she served as a constant, fierce, and classy reminder that staying true to one’s mission of promoting access to justice is essential. She emphasized that to forge a pathway for equality is not just about women’s rights, but women’s rights are essential for equal rights for all. Her loss reminds us to never shy away from the imperative to insist on progress.
The way I have always tried to lead our Miami Law students as they develop their methods of change and lawyering identities is to remind them to: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
Jordan R. Rhodes, J.D. Class of 2021, Student Bar Association president, University of Miami Student Trustee
Over the weekend, I spent time reading some of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s famous speeches, and I was reminded of her pivotal architectural role in creating many of the rights that exist in our country today. However, I was also reminded that in the more 200-year existence of the Supreme Court, she was only the second woman to serve on the nation’s highest court in the land. It is my hope that her legacy and years of dedicated service inspire a new generation of thought leaders who are not afraid to challenge norms or break down barriers.
Robin S. Rosenbaum, J.D. ’91; judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
Justice Ginsburg spent her lifetime fighting to make the promise of equality under the law a reality. Because of her, many, including myself, have enjoyed opportunities the law guaranteed but, before Justice Ginsburg’s tireless efforts—first as a lawyer and later as a judge and justice—often remained out of reach simply because they were born with an unalterable characteristic. That she had to work through sometimes-difficult personal circumstances only made her fiercer. Her bold spirit and legacy live on through the many she enabled and inspired.
Stephen J. Schnably, professor of law
A pioneering advocate for gender equality and a towering figure on the court, Justice Ginsburg was also notable for her consistent engagement with the constitutional traditions of other countries. Speaking in Cairo in 2012, she commended the South African and Canadian constitutions to Egyptians as they prepared to draft a new post-Arab Spring constitution. Her remark drew sharp rebukes at home that she was un-American. It was she, however, who best understood how deeply American constitutional insularity draws from the flawed notion that (as she characterized it) the Constitution is “a document essentially frozen in time as of the date of its ratification.”
Speaking at the South African Constitutional Court in 2006, she pointed out that in reaching its infamous 1857 holding in Dred Scott v. Sandford that the Constitution forever denied citizenship to Blacks, the Court had rejected any consideration of changes in public opinion here or in Europe out of fear that doing so might (as Chief Justice Taney put it) give “the words of the Constitution a more liberal construction” than the Framers had intended. It is better, Justice Ginsburg concluded, to heed the words of the Constitution’s Preamble that proclaim its purpose “to create a more perfect Union.” Her counsel that we read the Constitution “as belonging to a global 21st century, not as fixed forever by 18th-century understandings” will long remain an essential part of her legacy.
Aileen Ugalde, J.D. ’91, University of Miami vice president and general counsel
A couple of years ago, Ruth Bader Ginsburg joked about wishing she could’ve been a diva if only she’d had some particular talent. Actually, I think she was the very best kind of diva—all the talent and none of the drama. In other words, she was a revolutionary. She raised all the right questions, and her life answered most of them.
Anthony E. Varona, dean and M. Minnette Massey Professor of Law, School of Law
In Washington, Justice Ginsburg was a very visible and accessible public official, and—even in her later years—appeared at many legal community and other gatherings, often serving as the principal speaker and guest of honor. Whether it was at the dedication of a new law school complex, a law alumni dinner, a legal conference, or even at a performance of her beloved Washington Opera (for which at least twice she performed in costume herself), Justice Ginsburg’s involvement always enriched the occasion.
Much of Justice Ginsburg’s public engagement had to do with her pragmatic view of law as an important instrument in society’s work towards justice, fairness, and equality of opportunity for all. Her work as a litigator, as a professor, and as a judge expanded and improved many areas of law and bettered the lives of generations following in her footsteps. The phenomenal progress she achieved in gender equality, for example, provided the framework for more recent victories in marriage equality and LGBTQ antidiscrimination.
Justice Ginsburg’s accessibility and openness also were emblematic of her emphasis on civility and connection across ideological divides, as exemplified so vividly by her famously close friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia. She’s credited with saying about marriage and work relationships, “it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.” There’s much to learn from her example, of how to think as well as how to be as a lawyer. She leaves behind a legacy that benefits all of us.
Patricia D. White, professor and Dean Emerita
I knew Justice Ginsburg through the lens of my good friendship with my colleague and mentor at Georgetown University Law School, Marty Ginsburg. He was a giant in his own right, arguably the most impressive corporate tax lawyer in the country. He was also enormously humorous and quick with a self-deprecating quip. Whenever he spoke of his wife he absolutely beamed. He was so proud of her and, except about her cooking, always spoke of her in glowing terms. When I would see them together socially, he would still beam, tell funny stories, and generally be a wonderful raconteur. She would beam right back, listen quietly and appreciatively. Their mutual admiration and love were a wonderful thing to behold.